Supreme Court Backs Privacy for Cell Phone Users

The U.S. Supreme court recently bolstered personal privacy protections for anyone who owns a cell phone. The court’s new 5-4 ruling also clarifies some important safeguards for anyone facing Florida criminal charges (or elsewhere). The justices said that law enforcement officers generally need a warrant before they can obtain and search records showing when and where calls take place.

Supreme Court“Although such records are generated for commercial purposes, that distinction does not negate [Defendant]’s anticipation of privacy in his physical location,” the court said in a majority opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts. “Mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the holder’s whereabouts.”

Defendant was charged with six counts of robbery and another six firearms offenses for his alleged role as the leader of a string of robberies. Prosecutors used cell tower records—showing Defendant’s whereabouts over the span of 127 days—to try to show that Defendant was in the area where the crimes happened when the crimes happened. A trial judge allowed the prosecutors to enter the cell tower data as evidence, and Defendant was later convicted. A federal appeals court affirmed the decision.

But the Supreme Court said Defendant had a privacy interest in the data because it detailed his whereabouts. As a result, the prosecutors’ efforts to obtain and use those records implicated Defendant’s protections against searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That was true, the court said, even though the records were already being held by a third party, Defendant’s cell phone service provider.

“Given the unique nature of cell phone location records, the fact that the information is held by a third party does not by itself overcome the user’s claim to Fourth Amendment protection.”

As a result, the law enforcement officers and prosecutors needed to get a warrant from a judge in order to obtain the records. To obtain a warrant, they would have had to establish that they had probable cause to believe that Defendant was involved in the crime. Because the prosecutors didn’t get a warrant in this case, the court said the records could not be used against Defendant at trial. As a result, the court overturned Defendant’s conviction.

The court also warned that the decision was a “narrow” one based on the particular surveillance efforts in question in this case. Justice Roberts wrote that the ruling does not “call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras” and “does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information.”

If you or a loved one has been charged with a DUI or wide range of other crimes in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced attorney. Tampa criminal defense lawyer Will Hanlon is a seasoned attorney who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (813) 228-7095 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case. :

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